It is easy to find distinct order in the chiseled landscape of commemoration when you visit the world war one battlefields of the European western front.
Winding your way down bucolic country laneways or taking highways across the verdant expanses for which millions died, you’ll see hundreds of cemeteries with their blonde statuary, precise lawns and tended shrubs. They bring military structure to remembering.
In warmer months especially the poppies, endless twilights, the lark song, pealing church bells and laughter from estaminets make for an incongruous tranquility given the vast horror staged there a century ago.
Those neat, peaceful cemeteries serve a purpose: their order belies the savagery and filth of battlefield death so that the living can focus on those “fallen” now at “rest”.
Beyond those cemeteries, however, countless hundreds of thousands – perhaps even more – of (mostly) men are buried where they were obliterated with shrapnel or drowned in the mud. A gentle furrow here, a copse of trees there, give subtle clues to the fighting and what lies beneath.
So it is with the dead of the two battles of Bullecourt in northern France, which took place in April and May, 1917. At least 3,500 Australian soldiers, as many British and at least twice as many Germans, died in the battles. According to some estimates about 4,000 bodies were never recovered.
The earth swallowed them just as it did the dead from so many other battles of that war. There are many memorials dedicated specifically to the missing (of Australia’s 35,000 western front dead, 11,000 were never found, 4,000 unidentifiable at death) from the British imperial forces.
But just as the Enlightenment gave rise to the mechanised weapons of war that killed so many millions during the “great war” (an oxymoron if ever there was), progress now threatens the unmarked graves of the dead of Bullecourt. Read More …